Student charges Madison housing with discrimination against non-Catholics

1lumenhouselaurynA Catholic Church-operated housing facility in Wisconsin’s capital is being charged with discrimination against non-Catholics.

A student has filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission in Madison, Wis., over discriminatory rental practices at a downtown complex forcing renters who are not practicing Catholics to pay $1,200 more a year. The Lumen House building, a former Catholic school, is owned by St. Raphael’s, a Roman Catholic congregation. It opened in 2014.

In her statement filed on Oct. 12 alleging unlawful discrimination, student Nicole Niebler noted that both St. Raphael’s and Forward Management Inc. “discriminate against residents, and housing applicants, on the basis of religion and nonreligion.” Niebler is president of the campus group AHA! (Atheists, Humanists & Agnostics). 

Renters who participate in qualifying Roman Catholic religious programming and are approved by Father Eric Nielsen of St. Paul University Catholic Center pay $100 less a month in rent.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison-based state/church watchdog organization with 23,500 members nationwide, including about 500 in the Madison area, has helped investigate the problem and file the complaint on the student’s behalf.

“Many current and previous renters at Lumen House appear to be owed a significant refund from St. Raphael’s over this overt and invidious form of discrimination,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The application asks residents to “describe your involvement at St. Paul’s.” Options for qualifying participation include being part of Knights of Columbus, Students for Life — an antiabortion group — or “leading bible studies.” The application form includes a line for a signature by a Catholic priest. 

Niebler has considered renting a new apartment next August after she graduates. She toured Lumen House apartments earlier this month.

She told the Madison Equal Opportunity Commission that she knows Lumen House “offers a $100 monthly discount to students who are approved by St. Paul University Catholic Church,” but “is an atheist” who is not willing to apply to a Catholic priest for reduced rent or to attend worship services or participate in Catholic programs.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott notes that the church is also discriminating under Madison’s Equal Opportunities Ordinance by giving preference to students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lumen House has a quota to rent 10 percent or less of its units to non-UW students. Forward Management asks prospective tenants about their student status. Once the quota has been reached, Forward Management refuses to rent to nonstudents.

“This sort of discrimination based on the belief or unbelief of a prospective renter is a violation of that person’s civil rights,” says Gaylor. “It has no place in any civilized society and forms a legitimate basis for a legal complaint.”


Freedom From Religion Foundation

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